Headlines are touting the end of men and the rise of female breadwinners. But still, women who don’t want kids are treated as odd. In her new novel, Katrina Onstad tackles the taboo of the reluctant mother.
What happens when a childless-by-choice couple is suddenly forced to take custody of a toddler? Canadian novelist Katrina Onstad explores the ordeal of an unexpected adoption in her new book, Everybody Has Everything, released in the U.S. on June 25. Protagonists James and Ana find themselves caring for Finn, their friends’ 2 1/2-year-old, after a brutal car accident leaves his father dead and his mother in a coma. Though the unemployed James rises to the occasion, Type A legal researcher Ana reels at the prospect of motherhood, a fate she thought she had already escaped. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Onstad discusses the problems and prejudices of modern parenthood.
How did you develop the idea for this novel?
The clearest factor was, I had two kids really close together, a sort of Irish-twins phenomenon. Their presence in my life brought about a new relationship to death. That sounds really morbid, but it was the great life force and the profundity of having these kids at the same time that conjured up a natural awareness of mortality and fear for them—I felt very aware of their vulnerability in the world. From that, I was spiraling off into postpartum “what ifs.” Of course, one of the great questions when you have a kid is, what if you vanish into the abyss—who will take care of them? We still don’t have a really clean answer for that question, so we’re staying away from accidents and terrible circumstances—we will live forever! [laughs]
So it came from my own anxiety. I was less interested in exploring it from the parents’ perspective than I was from this imagined scenario of people who hadn’t invited parenthood suddenly having it thrust upon them.
Though you and Ana are in different situations, I think she also has that fear of the worst thing happening. Is that fair?
Yeah, I think she has a lot of control issues. One of the many huge, fundamental shifts that occurs when a kid enters your life is that you realize you have no control. Being a parent is really about giving that up and giving up that fantasy that you can create this perfect life for anybody—for this kid or for yourself. There’s so much mess in parenthood. So, for Ana, you’re right; that would tap into a deep fear for her, because she has this rage for order that is not compatible with parenthood.
Do you find you and your husband relate at all to Ana and James? Or is it a completely different set of emotional issues from what you deal with as people who chose parenthood?
It’s funny, because I’ve been doing a lot of book clubs, and the likability of these characters is always an issue. Some people really like one of them and don’t like the other; they have very intense relationships to them. So if you ask me if I identify with them, my first instinct is, no! I have nothing to do with them! [laughs]
Where there is some similarity is that we’re also having this very urban experience of parenthood, and I was interested in lightly satirizing the insanity of the parenting culture, so some of the more comedic elements of the book come from that. But in terms of emotional tenor, our lives are much less dramatic. As people, we’re really different from Ana and James—I don’t even know that I would want to hang out with them! But I recognize them; there’s something archetypal about each of them.
There’s a saying that mothers become parents during pregnancy, but fathers don’t become parents until the birth. How is this different for Ana and James, considering both their unique circumstance and their less-typical fulfillment of gender roles?
There’s definitely a kind of flip with them. I was interested in investigating the idea of a woman who maybe doesn’t have that so-called inborn maternal instinct and yet has been blindly following this cultural script toward motherhood. It’s the next on her list of accomplishments as she approaches middle age. But the reality is that maybe that’s not her part. The flip side of that is James, this slightly slovenly self-involved guy who is in fact an incredibly gifted parent.
I think there’s still a taboo around women who don’t pursue motherhood. Choosing not to be a mother is still a really prickly decision; it comes with a lot of judgment, a lot of questioning. I think it’s actually becoming easier for men to embrace fatherhood—a guy on a playground with a kid gets a small round of applause.
With the recent hubbub here in the States around female breadwinners, Ana seems a good example of a woman who brings home the bacon—and isn’t as naturally maternal as her husband is paternal.
We have the same statistics [in Canada]—it’s definitely a reflection of social change. In a way you could look at this in conjunction with Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men. I started writing this just before the economy collapsed, but the downturn was beginning. A person like James has felt that collapse very personally [having lost his job]. I don’t know how many tears I’m going to shed for him, but I do think that his story—a white guy in his 40s who suddenly has his identity separated from his work—is a really interesting and contemporary phenomenon. Then you see Ana excelling and what that does to a relationship. I think there’s going to be a lot of storytelling around those changes.
The title, Everybody Has Everything, can be read as forgiving or celebratory, but it’s also an accusation of selfishness. Can you explain how you chose it?
To be perfectly honest, my husband uttered this phrase in fury while we were trying to find a parking spot at Costco. As people were loading their crates of toilet paper and pop into their cars, he hit the steering wheel and said, “Oh, God, everybody has everything. Why are we even here?” I just liked the sound of it and the poetry of it. I had been working on the book without a title for a long time, and this seemed really appropriate to James and Ana’s lives. It is so much about acquisition and that fine line between being satisfied with one’s life and feeling that we’re all in a constant state of self-improvement. There are a lot of incomplete families and incomplete relationships and incomplete people, so the title references a quest for totality.
This interview has been edited and condensed.